Thursday, April 26, 2012

Ellison, Marcuse, and the Consciousness of Servitude

                Invisible Man and One-Dimensional Man have a clear relationship in that they deal with the issues of social-domination and the inability to recognize it.  Both Ellison and Marcuse are contending with this topic in slightly different ways.  Marcuse is mainly concerned with the overall power structure that is dominated by a select, privileged few, a power structure that perpetuates the destruction of multidimensional thought.  Ellison, on the other hand, focuses his lens a little more closely on the factors that racial tensions bring into this power structure.  In this essay, it is my objective to argue for a clear relationship between the power structures present in both Marcuse and Ellison.  Specifically, I will investigate how Marcuse’s “consciousness of servitude” is related to the narrator’s role as well as other characters  in Invisible Man.
                Marcuse asserts, “All liberation depends on the consciousness of servitude, and the emergence of this consciousness is always hampered by the predominance of needs and satisfactions which, to a great extent, have become the individual’s own” (Marcuse, 7).  Here, Marcuse is saying that for true freedom to occur, everyone must first realize that they are in fact not free.  Only then can people confront the status quo with alternatives, instigating a movement towards liberation.  However, this raises a problem: people are generally too preoccupied with attaining basic needs, or are too concerned with achieving success to realize that they are bound to the ultimate form of servitude.  As Box explains, Marcuse goes on to construct “a broader analysis of society that finds people distracted by sports, fun, and technology and pursuing the “false needs” generated by advertisements for consumer goods, and settling into the Happy Consciousness that no longer wonders whether there are alternatives to the status quo” (Box, 172).    Due to this fact, ultimate liberation may never present itself as a feasible goal. Box elaborates, “over time, an outline emerges of a society in which business and government cooperate to stifle knowledge of alternatives, prevent changes in the status quo, and preserve the advantages enjoyed by a few. Marcuse called this condition “containment”” (Box, 173).  The power structure’s containment of alternatives, coupled with the preservation of the status quo, may deem the Marcuse’s consciousness of servitude unattainable.  
                Marcuse’s idea of attaining the consciousness of servitude can be related to The Invisible Man on several occasions throughout the novel. However, the occasion that I would like to first investigate appears in Chapter 1, where the narrator’s grandfather speaks his dying words, “I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction” (Ellison, 16). The preceding quote from the narrator’s grandfather troubled his family greatly.  What exactly did he mean by this statement?   I believe that the grandfather meant that he regretted living a humble life in such a racist environment.  In living this meek life, he felt that he was a traitor to his family and his race.  The grandfather proceeded to tell his family to protect themselves by remaining compliant to the white power structure, but not to internally accept this role.  If they do not accept this role, they will not be traitors like him.  I also believe that the grandfather felt that his family could somehow overcome the current power structure by staying in the compliant character.  Jarenski explains, “the narrator's grandfather uses invisibility as an accommodationist tactic. He hopes on the one hand to disappear beneath a veil of yeses and grins so that he can live outside of the disciplinary gaze, and wishes on the other hand that his meek compliance will frustrate white power to the point of explosive destruction, causing it to vomit and burst” (Jarenski).    The grandfather’s dying words greatly trouble the narrator, as we see in the following quote, “It became a constant puzzle which lay unanswered in the back of my mind. And whenever things went well for me I remembered my grandfather and felt guilty and uncomfortable.  It was as though I was carrying out his advice in spite of myself.  And to make it worse, everyone loved me for it. I was praised by the most lily-white men of the town. I was considered an example of desirable conduct—just as my grandfather had been” (Ellison, 16). In the early stages of the novel, the narrator seems that his is accepting the role that the white power structure wants him to play.  He receives great praise for his behavior and is even given a scholarship to a black college.  The narrator seems to be well on his way to living the humble life his grandfather lived and regretted.
                This event directly relates to Marcuse’s consciousness of servitude.  The grandfather seemed to live a life that was presumably more concerned with basic needs then actually fighting against a system of white domination.  Throughout his life, the grandfather did not possess, or just refused to acknowledge, the consciousness of servitude that is referred to by Marcuse. However, it seems that the grandfather eventually gained this consciousness of servitude later in his life.  The narrator seems unable to fully grasp the consciousness of servitude early in the novel. He has been distracted by praise and benefits given to him, such as the scholarship. He continues to be blind to the fact that he is being taken advantage of in several instances like the “battle royal” in which he was made to participate.  All of the praise and gifts act as a cover that the narrator cannot see through.  This is very similar to Marcuse’s comments on the consciousness of servitude and how it is hampered by personal wants and needs.  The narrator does not yet possess this quality. All of the approval and acclaim prevent him from seeing his servitude, and in effect prevents the thought of real liberation from entering his mind.
                Let us investigate the battle royal event more closely as I believe it clearly demonstrates the motives of the power structure and the inability of the narrator to fully recognize how he is serving it.  At this event, the narrator was under the impression that he was only there to give a great speech in front of a white audience; he felt very good about this opportunity to demonstrate his abilities.  However, the narrator is made to participate in a battle royal with other black kids before giving the speech.  The narrator makes his initial thoughts about this very clear, “I suspected that fighting a battle royal might detract from the dignity of my speech. In those pre-invisible days I visualized myself as a potential Booker T. Washington” (Ellison, 18).  These thoughts show that the narrator does not yet recognize that by participating in the battle royal, he is serving the white power structure of the status quo by playing the role that the whites at the event want to see him play, a barbaric black fighting for coins.  Instead of recognizing his role, all the narrator can think about is how this battle royal might affect his upcoming speech.  Jarenski explains, “the narrator looks to find identity within the roles assigned to him by the white audience. His primary concern is how they will perceive his dual role as a participant and a speaker. At this point, the only way in which he is able to conceive of his identity is from their perspective. The use of the word visualize, a highly charged word throughout the novel, highlights this conception. Whites can only "see" the narrator when he performs the roles expected of black men, as in this case when he can only give his speech after he has been dehumanized by the battle. Similarly, he can only visualize himself within the context of a black role that has already been officially recognized, specifically that of Booker T. Washington” (Jarenski).  The narrator’s concerns about the battle royal do no change much throughout the event.  As the battle intensifies, the narrator explains, “The harder we fought the more threatening the men became.  And yet, I had begun to worry about my speech again.  How would it go?  Would they recognize my ability?  What would they give me?” (Ellison, 24).  Once again, we see that the narrator’s main concern is with how the battle royal will affect his speech instead of being concerned with how he is being used.  The narrator is more concerned with whether or not his ability will be recognized and what he will be given as an award.  As he makes his speech, the white audience jeers him when he mentions equality.  The narrator insists that he said something else and finishes his speech.  Later the narrator is presented with a college scholarship, cementing that everything he went through was worth it.  The narrator fails to see through this gift as a way of disguising his servitude, and as maintaining the status quo by showing the narrator that playing a certain role will get people like him somewhere in life.  Any alternative thoughts that the narrator may have are contained by praise and gifts.  This prevents the narrator from attaining the consciousness of servitude at this point of the novel.
                 “This is the pure form of servitude: to exist as an instrument, as a thing . . . the organizers and administrators themselves become increasingly dependent on the machinery which they organize and administer. And this mutual dependence is no longer the dialectical relationship between Master and Servant, which has been broken in the struggle for mutual recognition, but rather a vicious circle which encloses both the Master and the Servant” (Marcuse, 33).
                This quote from Marcuse also connects to Ellison. This quote is asserting that even the so-called masters of the power structure in place fall victim to it. They are bound to it and live their lives perpetuating it. The masters constantly seek more power while at the same time defend against the loss of power.  Box states, “Although people might be vaguely aware of the absence of alternatives, they are fearful of endangering their current position” (Box, 175).  An instance where this is clearly demonstrated in Invisible Man is when Bledsoe is admonishing the narrator.  The following quote is from Bledsoe, “This is a power set-up, son, and I’m at the controls.  You think about that. When you buck against me, you’re bucking against power, rich white folks power, the nation’s power—which means government power! (Ellison, 142). This quote illustrates Bledsoe’s view of his position at the college. He sees himself as holding authority over everyone at the college, and he seems pleased by this.  Even though his power in a way perpetuates the system of white control, Bledsoe loves his position. However, he seems to be very nervous and self-conscious about his power; he is very afraid that he might somehow be removed from his position of authority.  Bledsoe’s role in this connects to Marcuse’s comments on the Master and the Servant.  Even though Bledsoe holds power over the narrator, there is no classic master-servant relationship.  This is because both Bledsoe and the narrator are being controlled by the system dominated by whites.  Bledsoe is so concerned with keeping his power that he fails to see that he too is being controlled.  Bledsoe is blind to how he is being manipulated into perpetuating the current system in place.  He does this by being more concerned with keeping influential whites happy and giving them what they want to see, than with helping his race and college community progress against the system of domination.
                Towards the end of the novel, I believe the narrator clearly demonstrates that he has attained Marcuse’s consciousness of servitude to some degree.   This is seen when the narrator has sexual encounters with white women. “The narrator has two sexual encounters with white women that confirm and intensify his sense of himself as the abject. The first of these encounters happens in the context of one of the narrator's speeches for the Brotherhood, a political organization that pays the narrator to deliver speeches and organize community action, and, in the process, assigns him a commodified identity. The speeches represent moments of visibility for the narrator, and they are supposed to be moments of growing subjectivity. However, his sexual encounters suggest continued objectification” (Jarenski).  During these encounters, the narrator comes to realize that the white women see him only as a primitive sexual being for their rape fantasies.  While the narrator seems a bit unsure about this role in the first encounter, he fully recognizes it in the second encounter with a woman named Sybil.  When she asks him to rape her, the narrator plays along with the role saying, “I rapes real good when I'm drunk” (Ellison, 521).  I believe this is the narrator’s way of following his grandfather’s advice by giving the white woman what she expects to see from him.
                 The narrator has also discovered a new identity for himself, one of invisibility.  “Sybil's desire to believe she has been raped coincides with his realization that, to her, he is just another black brute. This realization awakens a new sense of reality in the narrator and he declares, "I'm invisible”” (Jarenski).  He does not go through with the sex act, as he feels sorry for her.  He cannot bring himself to dominate the woman and make her powerless and invisible like he has been to whites.  He instead decides to help the drunken Sybil to a taxi.
                The sexual encounters with the white women, coupled with the realization that the Brotherhood was merely using him for their own means, leads the narrator to finally become conscious of his role of servitude to the white power structure.  Now that he recognizes this role, he creates a new identity for himself; he now considers himself invisible.  At the end of the novel, we see the narrator still living in the secluded basement from the prologue.  The narrator still remains unnoticed by the outside world.  He hints that he may emerge from this basement by stating, “I’ve overstayed my hibernation, since there’s a possibility that even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play” (Ellison, 581).  When the narrator emerges, will he follow his grandfather’s advice to continue to yes and grin em’ to death? On the other hand, will the narrator find some other way to fight to white power structure?  Will he choose to do anything at all? Unfortunately, we will never know the answers to these questions.
                In conclusion, there is a clear relationship between Marcuse’s consciousness of servitude and the events that take place in Invisible Man.  The narrator goes through a clear transformation concerning this attribute.  Early on, the narrator is blind to his servitude; he is only concerned with praise and advancement.  Throughout the rest of the novel, the narrator becomes more and more aware of his role of servitude.  His realization that the Brotherhood was using him, along with the realization that the white women he had sexual encounters with only saw him as a rape fantasy object, allowed the narrator to gain the consciousness of servitude that Marcuse refers to.  This resulted in the narrator forming a new invisible identity for himself.  In addition, other characters such as Bledsoe reflect Marcuse’s view on servitude and the power structure at hand.

Works Cited:
Box, Richard C. "Marcuse Was Right." Administrative Theory & Praxis (M.E. Sharpe) 33.2 (2011): 169-191. Business Source Complete. Web. 10 Apr. 2012.
Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York: Vintage International, 1995. Print.
Jarenski, Shelly. "Invisibility embraced: the abject as a site of agency in Ellison's Invisible
                Man." MELUS 35.4 (2010): 85+. Academic OneFile. Web. 10 Apr. 2012\
Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man. Beacon, 1991.

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